The man who stands at Varkala train station
One of my favourite pastimes in India is to sit on a train and watch the countryside slowly roll by absorbing the view as the land slowly changes in both colour and texture from the dirt brown of a dry desert to the dense green of a thick forest with numerous chaotic stops on crowded platforms in city’s and towns along the way. One of these enjoyable though demanding train journeys is the Delhi to Thiravanathaporam ‘superfast’ train.
Newcomers to travel in India will marvel at impossibly long trains and the huge teams of staff who feed you every few hours as you sit and watch village life unchanged for hundreds of years, pass you by from your open window.
I have recently become quite jaded with this particular journey as I have done it on so many different occasions , it has now become one of the train journeys that I least look forward to. The Delhi to southern Keralan train is ‘superfast’ by name only. It can drag on and on.
I cannot recall the exact amount of times I have nearly lost the will to live whilst sitting on its solid shaking sleeper class seats. It must count as one of the most gruelling train journeys in the world. When you board this train from Old Delhi train station it is always packed with lively commuters and it is almost impossible to claim your booked seat. You sit upright for the first day until the beds are flipped down at night and then flipped back up again first thing in the morning after almost no sleep.
The train takes about two and a half days to arrive at its destination and during this epic trip from the plains of north India to the hot humid south, your fellow travellers who you fought with for a seat and who boarded the train at the start of the journey with you, must all disembark whilst you are sleeping. Or they must get off discreetly along the way, as you inevitably arrive at your destination when the train is deathly quiet and the mayhem that you experienced when you first found your seat is now a distant surreal memory. The entire train is now yours.
Waking up on the morning of day three feels as though you have entered another dimension and you have woken to find yourself travelling on board a ghost train. I personally never have any recollection of any of the other passengers ever leaving the train during the night. I feel like I have been drugged for the best part of twenty-four hours and when I get up and I pace up and down the half a mile of slowly rocking carriages I have never found more than two or three other people on board that train. We are like the last survivors passengers to have made it alive on a journey across hell.
This isn’t one of the longest train journeys in India in terms of distance but it is one of the slowest in terms of speed, especially the last third of it. As much as I love the wasted hours I have spent on trains, for all of the unpredictable madness that I know is bound to happen along the way, this particular train journey would test the patience of a Sadhu, it drags on minute by minute, hour after hour. The steel wheels rolling over the uneven train tracks keeping you awake for most fo the first night until in the end your mind and body can take no more and your bones are shaken into submission and you fall into a restless haunted sleep.
Now-a-days this train journeys one redeeming feature is the one thing that was on my mind when I boarded it in New Delhi, that is the fabulous the beach and surf that is always waiting for me when I eventually get off an agonising two and a half days later. Though I may choose to fly the next time.
Every time I have arrived at varkala train station I have seen this man and every time I have arrived I am always shattered; This mans body is covered by non malignant tumours, which is the condition of Neurofibromatosis. I recognised it as the same condition of the man who I photographed in Mumbai at Juhu beach ten years before in 1999.
I never really thought that I would one day ask to take this mans photograph, it never felt ok, I was always just passing through, I was too rushed to get to the beach and also my photographic equipment was packed away safely in my rucksack cushioning it from any impacts, protecting it from the few days of battering it would receive on the journey south from Delhi. So unpacking it, just for a portrait, would also have been a real pain in back side but I always said hello as I passed him as I walked through the exit and he would give me a nod back.
Also. I am generally not so hesitant, I can approach most people. Would it be appropriate for me to ask to take his portrait? I would be Singling him out from everyone else at the station just because of his appearance. My actions would draw even more attention towards him. He was though drawing attention to him self though. By just standing at this particular station making money from begging, he was taking advantage his situation. Was that ok for me to take advantage of his situation also?
The answer of cause is yes. If that was ok with him. I think?
I did not take this mans portrait until I was leaving varkala in 2009. I was waiting for a train, that as it happens was late and I was shocked as I watched a few foreigners who had just arrived on the opposite platform who were standing having their photographs taken next to him, they were treating their encounter with him it like personal freak show but what was more shocking is that he seemed quite accepting of this.
They gave him a few rupees before they left for the beach.
I unpacked my camera quickly from my rucksack and I crossed the bridge over to him. I asked him if he minded if I took his portrait, he gestured that it was ok. I took two frames; I gave him a few rupees and in seconds I had become part of this cruel circus. I still have reservations about how this image happened but I am torn because I also think it also patronising to assume he is a victim. I am sometimes shocked that I can confront a situation like this but who is taking advantage of whom?
Jason Scott Tilley